hen Deb Carey told her husband Dan that she wanted to start a brewery and wanted to hire him as the brewer, he brushed off the idea as little more than a pipe dream. While Dan, a Diploma Master Brewer who was working as a brewing supervisor for Anheuser-Busch in Colorado, liked the idea of having creative control of his own brewhouse, it seemed as likely as winning the lottery.
But Deb was determined to find a way to let Dan explore his passion on his own terms; after years of moving wherever brewing took Dan, she had become disillusioned with the exploitative nature of the industry towards brewing staff. She began working on a business plan and when a used 10-barrel brewing system came up for auction in Appleton, Wisconsin, she bid on it. They sold their house in Aurora, Colorado, purchased the equipment, secured a lease at an old 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the small town of New Glarus, Wisconsin, and started New Glarus Brewing Company in 1993.
Early on, everything that could go wrong for the 33-year-old entrepreneurs seemingly did. One financial dilemma followed another, including a tense showdown with the Village of New Glarus over a federal sewer surcharge that could have bankrupted the fledgling brewery. Once past those stumbling blocks, Deb had the tall task of gaining a foothold for Dan’s beer in a market that was dominated by domestic lager and European imports.
Despite brewing award-winning beers like Wisconsin Belgian Red, the Careys were struggling to keep the business afloat. That is until 1997, when Dan rolled out a pre-Prohibition farmhouse ale that Deb dubbed Spotted Cow. The unexpected success of the beer launched the company into orbit and helped propel New Glarus Brewing Co. to become the 26th largest brewery by sales volume in the United States, as of 2017.
Last year, the brewery produced 230,000 barrels of beer, all of which is sold in its home state of Wisconsin. Beer fans from across the country make the pilgrimage to New Glarus to visit the Bavarian village-inspired brewery and taproom perched atop the hill just outside of downtown. The fervor for New Glarus’ beer is so intense that it even led one Minnesota bar to sneak kegs over the state line and illegally sell it on tap in 2016.
This year marks 25 years since Deb and Dan Carey invested everything they had to start their brewery. We spoke with Deb about her and Dan’s journey, what it was like to be a woman selling craft beer in the 1990s, and their decision to go employee-owned.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Growler: Early on after you started were there any moments when you thought to yourselves “we’ve made a mistake”?
Deb Carey: I might have been thinking that this morning [laughs]. I see people in the movies who walk around confident all the time, but that’s not how Dan and I are wired. And I think it’s part of what drives us to be the best we can be, and that works out for everybody. There were moments of complete and utter desperation—not so much that we’d made a mistake, but there were many, many things that would happen where things are so bad you feel like you’re on your knees crawling through glass and you can’t figure out how you’re going to get through the day.
The first two years we didn’t even take a day off. We worked from 5 in the morning until 10 at night and we used to call it “running the gauntlet.” If we got to the end of the day and were still standing, we’d say: “Oh, we’re still standing!”
It seems like the model for new breweries is shifting from large distributing production breweries like yours to smaller neighborhood taprooms. And the kind of beer they’re brewing is pushing more to the edge of experimental craft varieties than the traditional styles New Glarus brews. Thinking about it now, do you think your business model is still a viable one today?
Yeah! And you can see people doing it—like Revolution Brewing is doing a really great job in Chicago. The thing is, and this is really clear, if you start a [brew]pub, you have a lot of control. You run a restaurant, you control the temperature of the beer, how it is served and the atmosphere and the food that goes with it, and it’s extremely profitable because you’ve got the mark-up for the wholesaler and the restaurateur right there.
Now that is the easier way to go because you don’t have to deal with wholesalers, but at the time I didn’t think that [having a restaurant where you would have a big crowd of people coming just for the beer] was imaginable. […] When I started the brewery, the kids were really small and we were having these crazy days where I thought I could get into the market one or two days a week and the rest of time I was doing things like payroll by hand and I was working on whatever jobs—like washing floors, helping Dan keg, bottling beer, all of the things that go with running a brewery, the physical things of it—and trying to get out to the market a couple times a week. And that is what I did.
“…at this point we were all in. If it didn’t work we’d literally be sleeping in our cars.”
Deb Carey, New Glarus Brewing Company
I learned all about distribution from the wholesalers. Some of them were really sweet to me. I’d be on any account three or four times and not make a sale and they’d be like, “Well, Deb, that’s how it works. You just have to keep showing up and be persistent. You are doing a good job.” And other people were exploitative and assholes about it. But it didn’t really matter because at this point we were all in. If it didn’t work we’d literally be sleeping in our cars. We were renting a house, we didn’t own a house and every bit of our money was there [in the brewery], and the girls were going to school and they need clothes, and we need food.
I appear to be a nice person, but I’m really bull-headed. So I was like, “No fucking way—I’m going to sell this beer.” […] This is good beer, and people are going to buy it, and my husband’s a great brewer, and I would just keep giving this pitch. I think just because of the sheer audacity of it, people would cave. They’d laugh and say, “You’ve been doing this for two years now. Fine, I’ll put it on.” And then it would sell, and they’d say, “Okay, we’ll keep it on.”
Or there was a guy—a prestigious liquor store in Madison—and I’d go in there every single week and he would not even meet with me. He’d just walk away. But pretty soon he’d start to say hi. And this would just keep going on where every week I’d show up and he’d act like a dick. Finally one time I show up, and this was a long ways into it—it might have been three years—and he goes, “Come here, I want to show you something.” I walk over and there at the very end of the cold storage, in the farthest corner, is my beer—it finally has cold space on the bottom shelf. And I was like: “Wow, that’s great. Thanks, I really appreciate it.” And he was like: “Don’t thank me. I’m not doing this because you keep showing up, and I don’t like you. I’m doing this because your beer is selling. See right here? It’s selling and you’ve got space.” And then he turned around and walked away. [laughs incredulously]
People would ask me, “How’d you get your job?” and every demeaning thing you can think of. And the sales guys would do stuff too, because they were tired of me showing up; “c’mon, she’s going to get bored and quit riding with us.” So they’d do stuff like, “Okay, we’ve got to go to this account in the morning.” Well, of course, it’s like “Porn in the Morn” or “Smut and Eggs.” Fine, you want to stand here and make me sell you beer while you’ve got porn on TV? I really don’t care.
Did you feel like you got a harder time because you were a woman in the industry, which at that point barely had any women in leadership roles? Or was that just par for the course for an independent brewery trying to make it?
I think it’s both. It depends on who asks me the question. Really at the time, I felt like they were particularly horrible to me because I was a woman and they would do stuff to try to rattle me, or put me down, and I just was very bullheaded.
The turning point on that situation was—maybe 1996 or something like that—I went to somebody’s conference that was in Boston and this guy who was head of sales for Sierra Nevada was giving a talk on dealing with wholesalers and how horrible they were and how to deal with them and stuff. Somewhere toward the end—I can’t remember if I said this to him alone or raised my hand, or something—I said, “Well it’s really bad, but I think it’s worse because I’m a woman.” And he jumped my shit and said: “You’d better figure it out; this is how these guys are. They are assholes, and if you think they’re assholes to you because you’re a woman, think again. They’re just assholes and that’s just how it is.”
He was so blunt about it and it really hurt my feelings, but I thought about it and many times since I’ve wanted to hunt him down and say thank you, because it was like a moment, a pivotal point, where I thought: I can’t take this personally, they just are assholes.
What is such a mystery to everybody in the industry—and I think it’s really simple—is trying to figure out how to have a respectful, productive relationship with wholesalers. It has been a personal challenge. I had to figure out a way to make it work that wasn’t making me crazy and didn’t result in lawsuits and still selling a lot of beer. I put a lot of time and energy into it and I think I’ve done it really well. But it’s really a gross experience. You can totally quote me on it, I hope they read it.
I imagine you get pressure from fans and retailers and distributors all the time to expand outside of Wisconsin: How do you know it’s the right decision to stay only in Wisconsin? Do you ever second-guess yourself?
No, we have never looked back. We did sell beer for a while in Illinois—for two or three years—and it was a nightmare because the kids were small and we had to drive to Chicago and everybody had their hand out: “If I give you a draft line, how many do I get for free?” Like, fuck you!
Brewing’s a lot like farming—you sell more beer, then you need more equipment, then you sell more beer, then you need more loans. […] We’d come to the point where we needed to take out another loan, and I was just sick to death of selling in Illinois and I said, “How about we just pull out of Illinois and that’ll give us the production we need to sell in Wisconsin? And I won’t be driving and I’ll just focus on Madison and Milwaukee.”
When I did that, people became unglued. It made all of the papers, wholesalers were threatening me with lawsuits, everybody was like, “Have you lost your mind, how can you blow off a market like Chicago?” And I was like, why am I going to keep wasting my time driving to Chicago because all they’re trying to do is get me to give away beer? I sell them a half barrel, they want a free half barrel. That’s not selling beer. That’s giving away beer. It’s giving away a lot of beer. I can’t afford to do it, and it’s exhausting.
The initial decision was borne of frustration but it made my life so much easier to just deal with my wholesalers in Wisconsin, which was keeping me plenty busy.
What went into your decision to start down the path toward employee ownership, and what has that meant for your employees?
My initial investors; there are like 27 people who own the brewery. They are all strangers to me, and so they’re very blunt with their questions. I’d have our annual meetings and it would be: “What’s going to happen when Dan dies?” And they’re unrelenting. Eventually they’d phrase it as: “What’s your exit strategy?” And as investors are, they’re persistent. So I’m like, shit, I don’t know, I’m just trying to get through the next week. But since they keep bringing it up, I have to be thinking about it.
And as I’m researching it—well, for one this business is not the kind of thing that I wanted for my daughters—I didn’t want them to have the experiences I was having. I made sure they got into college and they have different kinds of careers, and we don’t have any sons, so it’s not like I’m going to pass it on to somebody. And the generational idea of business ownership usually falls apart on the third or fourth generation, so that’s not really not all that stable.
“This business is not the kind of thing that I wanted for my daughters—I didn’t want them to have the experiences I was having.”
Deb Carey, New Glarus Brewing Company
Then you look at being bought out by a bigger brewery, which for a long time is what I thought would happen—we really hoped that some cool European brewery would say, “We’d love to have a brewery in the United States, so we’ll buy you!” […] But they continued to consolidate and cool mid-sized or larger European breweries became bought out by bigger breweries until it’s AB InBev that pretty much owns everyone.
And they [AB InBev] did come through and ask to buy us. But the way that blueprint is executed is they come in and cut costs, so they can be more profitable. The first thing they do is make everybody reapply for their own job and they cut health insurance and bring in their own management team and outsource and all of that. And that would put [out] all these people I’d worked with for 25 years—so I’m going to shaft every person who’s been working with me for all these years and take my pile of money and run away? That doesn’t make any sense. When the Widmer brothers sold to AB, it made sense. There were promises they’d keep their hands off, but you can see that’s not what’s happening. So that’s not a good option, so really, what am I going to do?
I had been invited to the White House a few times and eventually it culminates in a big meeting where I was with President Obama and there was a bunch of small business people there, including the woman who created Dansko shoes [… who] at the end of it, talked about being an ESOP and how it was really good for the employees and their stability. And when I researched it, it has a great track record of longevity—probably the best track record of a business continuing into the years than any other ideas. So a few years ago I hired an attorney to help me create the ESOP, so now we are employee owned.
[…] We’ll see what happens in the future, but everybody’s here, working hard and working to make this all successful, and there’s a lot of selfless behavior. But I think it’s not just the ESOP—the ESOP is icing on the cake.
It’s awesome that you did that for your employees and it sounds like it’s working out. At the same time, it seems kind of sad that you didn’t want this life for your daughters. Was it hard to come to terms with the fact that the business wouldn’t be staying in the family?
No. I knew right away. […] I say to people things like: You think it’s fun to sell beer? Think of taking a drive and all the cool places where you thought you might stop to have a drink or have dinner or something, and that’s really cool and it sounds really fun. Now open your eyes and think of every place that sells alcohol between where you started and where you stopped. Because you don’t just go to the nice places, and say: “Hey, will you carry my beer?” You go into every single place.
Places where people are laying on the floor with a hangover. Places where somebody got murdered last week. Places where people are discussing body piercings that you didn’t know people even did. There’s people that are struggling with all types of addiction, they’ve got personal issues. They’re treating you like crap, they’re frying cockroaches with a torch while they’re talking to you, they’re sucking the water out of the basement while they’re watching porn. It’s just like, no! Why would I want any of my relatives in that? I can’t believe I did it, frankly. It’s so stressful and it’s so hard. It didn’t happen a lot, but there’s more than once where I’d get done selling, pull over the car, and throw up. It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard. You take a lot of shit. When you go in and you sell beer—and when you think about it from their perspective, there have been all these reps from all these different products—it’s not unusual to get yelled at about something that had nothing to do with me. […] People see you as an available punching bag, and maybe they’ve had a bad day.
You gave the keynote address at this past Craft Brewers Conference. You’ve won many awards and garnered praise as a business leader—how does it feel to be looked at as one of the leading voices for America’s craft beer industry? Did you ever see yourself in that position of giving that keynote address?
No. No! And I almost didn’t do it. I’m a real behind-the-scenes person, for one. I obviously can handle crowds, but I’m not the person who wants to be on the stage. I don’t generally enjoy people looking at me, I don’t feel comfortable doing it. It’s not something I envisioned. Even when the sentence comes out of your mouth, I’m like, “What?”
So: Did I envision this? No. How does this feel? I think with everything I do, the success of the brewery or smaller things like running the Chamber of Commerce and or stuff like the [Wisconsin] Brewers Guild, I feel like it’s a great honor, it’s very humbling, and it’s completely overwhelming and unexpected. I don’t know that I am the voice of craft brewing—I think I’m not, particularly. But what I see as my job—and it’s an important thing to communicate—why I gave a keynote address is because I think I have a unique position of understanding what it’s like to be very poor and work very hard, and also now I have understanding of what it’s like to be very wealthy and very successful and there aren’t a lot of people who have walked in both of those worlds. And I still do have friends on all sides. At this particular juncture, at this particular moment in time, I think that voice and understanding is rare.
There is complete and utter lack of communication sometimes that can almost be crippling, and it’s important to have voices that have a lot of common sense and care deeply about human beings. For me, I feel like it’s a big responsibility, and a huge honor, and it’s really shocking.